NBA Live 06 Review (Xbox)
Here we go again. Another year and another batch of NBA basketball games - but this year is slightly different. This year, we have the Xbox 360 debuting in the two months and so we will have two different versions of each NBA game. Because of this, the development teams working on the games have had to split times working on them. Will this cause EA to release a subpar version of NBA Live 06 for the Xbox? Let’s see.
The player models are slightly different; good in some ways, bad in others. It seems that EA decided to shrink the player models and increase the head size which gives each player a "bobble head" look. It’s not as extreme as it sounds, but most players don’t look natural. One great addition is the "Player Evolution" feature. This is a feature connected to the Franchise mode. Over time, just as in real life, a player’s body type will change. You may draft a 6'10", 245 pound power forward that's in great shape - but if you don’t train him properly, he could become a fat, out-of-shape 300-pounder. Think Shawn Kemp. It’s great that you can actually see the physical change in players over the year. You also have a visual notification of which players you need to train and which players are in decent shape.
The arena models are absolutely the same as last year. The new Charlotte Bobcats arena is not in the game, even though it appears to be. The arena that the Bobcats play in is named the Charlotte Bobcats Arena, but it looks nothing like the real arena. It would have been nice if EA would have made a few improvements to the arenas; like electronic ad boards or improved lighting. This appears to be a case of EA realizing this is probably the last year it will use this graphics engine and deciding that therefore the arenas didn’t need any improvements.
I have said this before, and I will continue to say this until EA changes. EA, please add custom in-game music to your sports games and stop forcing use to hear "EA Trax" during games. What the game developers at EA don’t understand is that I'm not going to buy an album from Stat Quo or the Black Eyed Peas just because I heard it while playing NBA Live 06. The inclusion of custom in-game music will improve the game’s presentation and atmosphere. Also, it would be a much-needed addition that the competition has had in their game for two years.
Mike Fratello is now coach of the Memphis Grizzlies so EA chose his replacement on TNT as his NBA Live 06 replacement. In my opinion, Steve Kerr isn't much different than Fratello. Fratello had very few lines and a flat delivery - and so does Kerr. Marv Albert is the play-by-play man again and I don't think he actually spent much time in the recording booth this year. There isn't a lot of new commentary, and it seems to be a little worse than last year, as there will be certain plays where neither Albert nor Kerr will say a word. On the other hand, there are certain plays where both commentators will be so immersed in a story that they will ignore what’s happening on the court. I'm hoping for a big change in the Xbox 360 version.
Let’s start with the feature that EA is highlighting this year, "Superstar Moves". This year, certain players on each team have offensive or defensive moves that only players with the same "Superstar" attribute can do. There are six such attributes: shooter, scorer, high flyer, stopper, playmaker and power. Players like Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd have multiple superstar attributes and using the different dunks, lay-ups and passes is a lot of fun. The main problem with the "Superstar" feature is similar to what affects most EA games. Every time EA introduces a new feature, the feature is usually too effective and easy to abuse. The first year EA introduced "Freestyle", it was too easy to use and it ruined the game. The same thing happened a few years later when EA introduced the "Pro Hop." Now, the "Superstar" feature is not so effective that it ruins the game, but many of the dunks and lay-ups appear to be unstoppable - no matter the difficulty level or the slider setting. EA made a mistake by not including a "Superstar" slider. Hopefully, one will be added next year.
Before I get into the on-court aspect of the game, let me make this clear. If you are looking for a realistic "sim"-like basketball game, you have to tweak the sliders and both the user and CPU team gameplans. Without those changes, teams seem to play exactly the same - no matter who you are playing. With those tweaks, the CPU's team will run plays similar to its real life counterpart. The on-court action is much improved this year. After many years, the fast break bug appears to be fixed. For years, it was impossible to run a fast break for several reasons; including players stopping to catch passes and refusing to finish the break at the basket. This year, both the user and CPU will be able to successfully run the fast break. The game also features some of the best slam dunk and lay-up animations that I have ever seen.
Where NBA Live 06 shines is in it's defensive AI. If you set the CPU's defensive gameplan to "autoswitch", the CPU will call different defensive sets to counter your offensive play calls. For example, I called an Isolation play with Kobe Bryant in a mismatch against Steve Nash. Immediately after calling that play, the CPU called a half court trap, and immediately double teamed Bryant with Shawn Marion. In previous versions of "Live", the CPU only called man-to-man or 2-3 zone defenses. This year, you are likely to see the CPU call different variations of zone defenses. Another great feature of the defensive AI is in regard to defensive switches. Mis-matches occur just like in real life, because defenders will pick up the ball handler when coming up court; no matter the position of the ball handler. For example, when I played against the Suns with the Lakers, Nash was guarded by Mckie, Bryant and Odom at times. This is true-to-life, because in certain situations, shooting guards are forced to guard point guards and vice versa. The best part is that the switches are realistic, meaning that you will rarely see a center or power forward guarding the ball handler.
Play-calling is much improved this year. Now you can call eight plays during the game; four of the plays are set plays for all teams (Isolation, Pick and Roll etc.) and the other four are team specific. NBA Live 06 also features new plays for the first time in more than four years.
One thing the Live series has done well for the past few years is its franchise mode, and this year is no different. Everything is included; from hiring assistant coaches and scouts to conducting training camp and the draft. As a GM, you are constantly kept busy, whether its assigning tasks to your scouts or having your trainer work on your injured star player. The trade and draft logic are spot-on and the season stats appear to be pretty accurate.
Now, let’s get down to what this game does wrong. I think I'm a reasonable guy. I give video game companies a year and sometimes two years to correct a problem with a game. We are now at year three and there are a ton of known issues that have not been fixed by EA. Players "skate" just as they have for the past four years. For some unknown reason, EA refuses to fix, or at least minimize the amount of "skating" in this game. Players will slide and glide all over the court - and its not just a visual issue. Sometimes the sliding will lead to easy baskets by your opponent as you are unable to defend because your player is gliding right past him. Sliding is most noticeable in the post where it is difficult to guard a player backing you down. Also, while this problem is as bad as it was in previous years, players do sometimes become bunched or stuck together after calling plays.
The rebounding logic and animations are horrible. There are too many offensive rebounds, even after changing the slider to zero. Many of the rebounds gathered hit the floor first - which never occurs in the NBA. You never get the sense that players are battling for rebounds, as they often will grab rebounds at the end of their jump - or miss the rebound entirely. The rebounding logic doesn’t make the game unplayable, but it is something that should have been seen and fixed before the game was released.
The passing animations are something that should have and could have been fixed years ago. Passes are either bullet passes or floating lobs, and neither look like an actual basketball pass. The dribble animations are hit-or-miss, as well. The dribble animations connected to "Freestyle" are well done; however, the basic dribble animations look awkward.
There also a number of other small things that should have been added or fixed, but EA has refused to do so for whatever reason. For years, Live has featured a bug that hasn't been highlighted much - but is apparent to anyone who has played the game. During the end of a quarter or game, the CPU will shoot the ball with three or four seconds left - no matter where it is on the court. This can cause a huge problem in close games against the CPU. For example, I was up by one against the Bobcats with four seconds remaining. The CPU inbounded the ball to Brevin Knight, who immediately launched a half-court three. With four seconds left, he could have (and should have!) taken a few dribbles or passed the ball to get a better shot, but the CPU is programmed to launch a shot - no matter where it is - if there are four seconds left.
Presentation continues to be a problem for all EA Sports games, and especially for NBA Live 06. For the past few years, it seems to me that EA thinks that every gamer is just in a rush to get into the game and doesn't want player introductions or highlights. Well, some of us do want those things. I hate to mention the competition in a review for NBA Live 06, but 2K Sports' NBA 2K6 at least gives you the option of watching the player introductions and halftime and end game highlights. EA also removed the automatic replays from the game. The only way to watch replays this year is to manually pause the game and watch the replay from the menu unless it’s a replay of a superstar move. It's slightly irritating to have to pause the game every time a great non-superstar move is made in order to watch a replay. Live 06 features the same stat overlays that have been in the game since 2001. There are very few player specific stat overlays, and the only way to track a player’s stats is to pause the game and go to the stats menu.
Finally, the rosters are very outdated and there was a bit of slowdown when playing in some of the arenas. I can excuse not being able to include some of the recent trades, but Bobby Simmons signed with the Bucks on the first day of the free agency period. That's simply inexcusable.
I say this in pretty much every review that I write, but I feel the need to emphasize this point. Do not focus solely on the final score! In the end, NBA Live 06 plays a pretty good game of basketball with the right slider tweaks. Out of the box, the game is an unrealistic dunkfest, but after some slider changes, the game resembles the NBA. That said, I can’t reward EA's slow pace to fix problems with the game by rewarding this game with a high score. EA was given three years to fix the sliding, the passing and the rebounding - and it still refuses to fix these problems. With the exception of "Superstar" mode, all of the "improvements" are things that should be in any basketball video game. You shouldn’t get credit for adding fast breaks to a basketball game. You shouldn’t get credit for adding more plays to the game for the first time in five years.
Some of you may ask how I can say NBA Live 06 is a better game than NBA Live 2005 - and then give it a lower score. The reason is simple - NBA Live 06 is the game that NBA Live 2005 should have been. NBA Live 2005 should have had fast breaks, more plays and teams playing like their real-life counterparts. NBA Live 06 has all of these things (with some adjustments), but they're a year too late. Again, I simply can't reward a game company for adding things to a game that should have been included or were formerly included.
However, the bottom line is this: If you liked NBA Live 2005, you will love NBA Live 06. But if you didn’t like Live last year, then you probably won’t like it this year, either.